Saturday, April 22, 2017

12 Strategies to Find Time To Write Your Novel


Since we’ve nearly reached May and summer isn’t that far off (a time when our schedules fill up with cookouts, road trips and family obligations) I thought I would write a post on techniques that can be used to find time to write.  I used most of these back when I had a job in the financial industry.  


1)    Keep a Record of How You Spend Your Time: For two weeks keep a journal in which you record how you spend your time in fifteen-minute increments.  When you’re done you’ll probably find one or two things you can live without. This will help you find an hour or two every day that you can devote to writing. 

2)    Record How Much Time You Spend Writing: While I’m writing or editing I literally have a stopwatch going on my computer.  When I stop to take a Facebook or Netflix break I stop the stopwatch.  The stopwatch only goes while I am actually writing.  This way I get a realistic sense of how much time I write every day. I even keep an Excel spreadsheet in which I record my daily times. That way I can track when I’m doing well and when I need to give myself a firm kick in the ass.

3)    Stop watching TV! Or at least bring it down to an hour a day (at most).  This also goes for hours spent watching Internet videos and punishing yourself by reading online comments.  I don’t mean to sound like your agitated grandfather but many of us waste years of our lives focused on entertainment we don’t even enjoy.  We live in the binge-watching era but we also live in an era where we can choose to watch whatever we want whenever we want to.  If there’s a show you’re addicted to save it for when you’re cooking, cleaning or folding laundry.  I appreciate how much we need some time to unwind at the end of the day but in the long run we feel better when we spend time on our art.

4)    Listen to Books on CD. One of the big advices given to aspiring writers is to constantly read.  Obviously this can be difficult for people who aren’t already filling up their schedules by writing novels or short stories.  Your public library is filled with great books on CD that you can listen to in the car.  I would suggest choosing books that may be more plot and character driven (The Song of Ice and Fire series, The Martian, most books by Stephen King, Joe Hill or Gillian Flynn).  Read the books that are more language driven.  My two favorite books to listen to on CD are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and World War Z.

5)     Tell people you are writing:  Be honest.  This shouldn’t be a secret.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.  Tell your friends and family that you are a writer.  Let them know that this is something important to you.  Ask for help in trying to find time.  I know that many of you might have friends and family who just don’t “get” that you are a writer.  Regardless, try to explain it to them.  They might surprise you.  If they aren’t supportive, don’t let that stop you.  They’re just coming from a different mindset.  That being said, when possible try to surround yourself with people who understand and share your passion. 

6)    Are you a night person or a morning person?  I know that the our mothers tell us to get a goodnight sleep, but you may be one of those people whose schedule is so filled up the only time you can spend writing is when you would otherwise be asleep.  So, if possible, try to get away with one less hour of sleep.  Set your alarm an hour and fifteen minutes earlier (the fifteen minutes are to make sure you are awake) OR have a bit of caffeine around dinner to help you stay up an extra hour.  If you don’t know if you work best in the early morning or late at night, experiment and see what you find. 

7)    Writing at work.  I wouldn’t recommend this for air traffic controllers, however if you have a basic office job, you will probably be able to find time to at least get some brainstorming done.  Writing out full chapters may not be realistic, but if you use outlines you can at least steal five or ten minutes hear or there to jot down thoughts about your next chapter or story.  That way when you do have a larger chunk of time you’ll use it as effectively as possible.  Unless you have a super cool boss I wouldn’t recommend keeping any of these notes on a company computer.  Just use pen and scraps of paper.  

8)    Lunch Breaks: If you have a lunch break that lasts forty-five minutes to an hour, that’s a good chunk of time that can be spent writing.  Find a place to hole away with your lunch (I often used my car) and eat while writing.  I know that lunch is the time in the middle of the day to unwind, but you may feel more energized if you spend the time doing something you love.  

9)    Keep your goals realistic.  I, more than anyone else, would love to be able to spend eight hours a day writing, but that just doesn’t happen (at least not often).  If you set your goals too high you will end up crushed by disappointment.  If you’re just starting out and have a super busy schedule I’d say aim for an hour a day.  That’s a solid hour in which you’re not doing anything but writing.  Writing an hour a day along with scraps of time here or there to jot down notes will mean that you could write the first draft of a novel in a matter of months. 

10)  Write Daily:  Okay, I know that not everyone can write EVERY day (although I am that guy who gets up extra early on Christmas morning to edit because I know I won’t have the time later on).  However, try to write most days.  Even if you slack off for two or three days you’ll lose momentum and start second-guessing yourself.  It doesn’t take long to lose interest in your story and forget to pick up your pen again. 

11)  Reward Yourself: I know that following your passion is its own reward.  However, it never hurts to have something to look forward to.  “Okay I won’t watch a second of television until my stop watch hits sixty minutes.”  Or  “As soon as I’m done editing this chapter I’ll ­­­­eat some (Insert your favorite food here).”  Very often you’ll get so caught up with your story you’ll keep going even after you’ve reached the point where you now deserve the reward.  Never forget, sitting down to write is always harder than actually writing. 

And Finally….

12)  There will NEVER be a perfect time to write: There will always be school or a day job or kids or house repairs or a dog who is allergic to the rug but can’t stop licking it (or all of the above).  We will never have perfect stretches of time to write our novels.  Yes this goes for teachers on summer vacation because those two months will be filled with all of the other things that they put off throughout the year. 

In fact, you don’t want a perfectly free schedule.  Days in which you have nothing to do but write are usually spent waking up late, watching an episode of The Daily Show online, chatting with people on Facebook, doing the laundry, eating lunch, watching a funny cat video…. and oh shit! It’s four in the afternoon, you haven’t written a word and you’re meeting up with friends in half an hour.  

That’s one thing I like about having a job in the evenings. I only have so much time to get done what I needed to get done before I have to go to work.  Writing in limited slots of time motivates me to get my work done as quickly and effectively as possible, rather than eventually getting to them on a lazy Sunday.  Not to get too meta but I wrote this blog in a library while waiting for my wife who will probably come back in an hour.


We all have insanely busy schedules (unless you inherited a large fortune and there’s no one forcing you to work…in which case please adopt me) but if we step back and analyze our schedules we will most likely find chunks of time in which to pursue our art.  In fact, our busy schedules have potential to push us so that we are even more productive and meet our full potential.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

4 Types of Novel Outlines: When to Use Them and When to Treat Them Like The Plague


(Just for the record, I used an outline to write this blog about outlines.  So there’s that.)

We live in such overwhelmingly controversial times but somehow whether or not authors should use outlines manages to remain a widely disputed topic.  There are plenty of published novelists who discourage using them and claim that they ruin the creative process. 

For example, Stephen King is known for saying that real writers don’t use outlines.  His son, who writes under the pseudonym Joe Hill, published a novel in 2016 entitled The Fireman in which a main character says (I’m paraphrasing here) that he hopes all writers who use outlines are burned on a pyre of them. 

 While I’m a fan of Stephen King and an even bigger fan of his son, I have to respectfully disagree with the blanket statement to never use these tools.  

Don’t get me wrong, there is a danger to outlining a novel.  Authors (including myself) often waste too much time writing outlines and sometimes rely on them as a crutch. 

While mapping out one’s story can be incredibly helpful, the key is to spend minimal time doing it.  However, it can be essential to creating a clear and concise story that maximizes your creativity.   

Below are four types of novel outlines, when to use them, their benefits and (of course) their drawbacks. 


1) PRE-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE. 

This is the one you want to spend the least amount of time on because it’s easy to become addicted (yes addicted) to outlining your story to the point that you’re bored with it before you get around to writing the first sentence.  That being said, it can be essential. 

I don’t know how the rest of you get your ideas, but when they strike me they come so fast that if I don’t jot them down on a sheet of paper I will lose them.  (For some reason recording them on a laptop or phone never feels right.)  

(Me)


If I tried to sit down and write out these ideas in the form of a rough draft I would forget half of them before I was off the first page.   Also I’m often in a situation (on the Subway or at work) where I can easily jot down ideas but it wouldn’t be practical to start writing a chapter at that exact moment. 
The key here is that once you have jotted down all of the ideas that naturally arise and you have an idea of where the story starts (of course this might change later on), it’s vital to stop outlining.  The purpose of pre-first draft outlines is to record ideas your brain is throwing at you, not to force yourself to churn out a full story.

I know that we all want the entire story to spring out fully formed like Athena, but when you start your manuscript you don’t need to know every single detail (or even many of the details).  You just need to catch all of your initial ideas before you forget them. If you force the ideas, they’ll feel forced.  You’ll have plenty of time to connect all of the story lines, characters and twists in the many drafts to follow. 


INTERLUDE: A MAJOR PIECE OF ADVICE

Never, under any circumstance, feel like you need to follow your outlines to the letter.  They’re just tools.  Just because you write something down doesn’t make it cannon.   I know that this might seem obvious, but once you have something about your characters/world on paper it can be tempting to stick with it come hell or high water. 

Personally, I very seldom look at my pre-first draft outline while I’m actually writing my first draft.  Just jotting down notes brings the story lines and characters to the front of my brain so I can tell the story that needs to be told.  


2) FIRST DRAFT OUTLINES. 

While I am writing my first draft I very often keep notes or a rough outline of what I imagine will happen in the foreseeable chapters.  This helps because:

1)    I don’t want to forget them.
2)    It’s a guide/reminder of where I want the story to go.   

When I write a chapter or a short story for the very first time I often start out writing it by hand in outline form.  However, as I delve deeper into the scene, I add more dialogue and description until I end up writing the chapter/story in paragraphs.  Therefore, I go from writing an outline to the story itself.  Later, when I type up the chapter/story, I go back and flesh out the beginning of the scene.

The goal is to have ideas flow easily through you so they come organically and you still have the ability to surprise yourself (and therefore the reader).  The outline allows you to organize your thoughts and the story.  However, if you adhere too close to an outline created before you even wrote the first sentence, the story will feel stale.   


3) LIST OUTLINES

So suppose you’re writing the scene where your heroes escape from the villain.  For the sake of an example let’s say they have become trapped in a warlock’s accounting firm.   If the means of their escape comes to you naturally as you are writing, excellent!  Keep up the good work!  Here’s a cookie!  



However, very often solutions like this won’t come right away or what you write is trite and relies too much on coincidence.  This is the kind of situation where a List Outline might come in handy.  (By the way I never actually thought of outlines by these names until I wrote this blog.) 

A List Outline is pretty much like it sounds.  You jot down all of the different ways your heroes can escape, even possibilities you would never, ever use.  This gets the creative blood flowing. 

Your list might look something like this:

1. Stacy’s roommate Ryan breaks into the warlock’s accounting firm and saves them at the last moment.
2. They manage to break a window and climb down on a ladder made of paper clips. 
3. They get to a window and start screaming until the little old lady next door turns up her hearing aid and calls the police.
4. Earlier in the story Stacy finds an amulet that helps her bash through walls. 
5. They type a formula into the warlock’s calculator, which summons a Fraction Demon.  The demon tears the building apart so they can escape. 

You get the idea. 

The reason for this list is that initial ideas in your story (like how characters escape, how couples meet or how heroes get their super powers) tend to be based on ideas we have run into from other stories.  The first ideas that pop into our head are very often cliché and overused, but the more we dig the sooner we will find escape plans, meet cutes and origin stories that are original and fit with the nature of our world. 


4) POST-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE

Here is the one I use the most. 

Congratulations!  You have written the first draft of your novel!  And this is where you realize that it’s a piece of 

 

But that’s okay, because everyone’s first draft is a piece of 



Basically what you do here is make an outline of the story you wrote in order to map out your manuscript as a whole.  When you are done with this outline (or even while you are completing it) you can look it over and figure out the story you want to tell.  You look for unnecessary characters and chapters that need to be cut, holes where your plot becomes flimsy and you rearrange scenes so that your story has a distinct beginning, middle and end. 

Stories, especially novels, have so many moving parts that it’s often impossible to picture them as a whole.  You sometimes need to actually have a guide that shows you the various steps your characters take in order to remove sections that are extraneous and to develop themes that come about.  This is especially true for plots that are naturally complex or are told in a non-linear fashion. 



I think most writers will agree that rising authors need to do what’s right for them.  Obviously, what I have presented here are examples that I have found helpful.  If you never use outlines and you’re on your third novel that’s fantastic, our brains just work differently.  However if you’re having trouble reworking your first draft or even getting past your first page, don’t let the “real writers don’t use outlines” myth discourage you from implementing these helpful (if sometimes overused) tools.    

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

So I Quit My Job at an Investment Company to Become a Novelist


JUST TO GIVE YOU SOME BACKGROUND….

Between December 2009 and September 2016, I worked at T. Rowe Price, an asset management firm located in the Baltimore area. 

I joined the firm for two reasons:
a) The recession had just happened and jobs were scarce
b) I was looking for a job that actually ended at five so I could spend my evenings and weekends writing. 

And the crazy thing about point "b" is that it actually worked for a while!

I know there’s that stereotype that you take a white-collar job and it immediately crushes your soul.  Your spirit dies and you never make art again.  However, I was CONSIDERABLY more productive during my time at T. Rowe than I ever was when I was a student or an English teacher.  In part, this is because I spent my days working a job I had no interest in so I pushed myself to pursue what I loved during my evenings and weekends. 

Now, when I say I had a job in the investment industry you tend to think of this guy:




First of all, I had a much nicer computer.  

Second of all, my four positions at T. Rowe Price mostly had to do with processing checks, forms and talking to customers on the phones.      

Now, if I had been interested in finances this would have been a great jumping off point (for the record this post is in no way meant to disparage T. Rowe Price).  However, I had researched various jobs and career paths throughout the company and everything I found just looked like positions where I would be miserable. 

At last, I made a decision that no one (least of all me) saw coming.

  
MY DECISION

It was December 14, 2015 (the Monday before Force Awakens came out).  There was nothing particularly bad about the day except that it was cold and rainy.  I was working at my job as usual, when around eleven in the morning I was overwhelmed by crushing frustration.  This had happened in the past, but on that particular Monday the feeling became so bad I couldn't concentrate on my work.  All I could think about was that I was wasting my life.  I knew what I wanted to do.  There are so many stories I want to tell, but I didn’t have the time because I spent eight hours a day (usually more thanks to considerable overtime) working a job I had no interest in.  

I became so frustrated that during my lunch break I called my wife and told her (realizing it for myself as the words came out), “I need to quit my job and spend a year focusing on my writing.” - Not an exact quote.  In reality it took me about fifteen minutes to get to this point. 

To her credit, my wife didn't immediately hang up the phone and call a divorce lawyer. 

She was (is) incredibly supportive even though at the time this seemed like an absolutely insane idea.  Trust me, I know more than anyone else how insane this concept seemed.  I pictured myself putting us in financial jeopardy.  We would end up on the streets eating our cats.  I felt guilty for putting her in this situation.  

Also there was the, “What will people say?” factor.    (In this context "People" =  "Our Parents")

However, the longer I lived with the idea, the more I realized how much it made sense.  I’m still (relatively) young.  My wife and I don’t have kids.  We’re not rich but we’re somewhat steady financially.   I’m working on a project that I honestly think could make it.  While attending conferences I have heard stories from countless published novelists who say that they eventually reached a point where they had to make a leap like this one.  If I didn’t make this leap now when would I?


WHAT DID PEOPLE SAY?

I ended up practicing what I was going to tell my parents (and my wife’s parents) by explaining the situation to two of my friends.  This gave me an opportunity to get my thoughts in order and plan out how I was going to lead into my proposal. 

While this wasn’t our parents' favorite idea, they were surprisingly receptive.  They agreed that if I was going to pull a stunt like this, now would be the time to do it.  No bottles of champagne were opened, but they also weren't painting pictures of us eating our cats.    

Even my co-workers at T. Rowe Price were very encouraging, and several of my friends are very excited that I have this opportunity.    

I am extremely lucky, not just because I am in a position where I can pursue what I love but also because I’ve had such overwhelming support.  In a way this makes the whole situation even more intimidating.  I have so many people believing in me that I'd sure as hell better not screw this up.


SO AM I SCREWING THIS UP?

At the end of this past September, I walked out of T. Rowe Price for the last time.  The following Monday I started a part-time job at a nearby library.  The plan had always been for me to have a twenty-hour a week job so I could bring some money into the house and make sure there were no questionable time gaps in the resume. 

These past three and a half months have been extremely productive.  I’ve completed and edited what I believe to be a very strong draft of my novel, The Hitchhikers of the Night Highways, implementing all of the feedback I received from readers the previous year.  Also, I have written several short stories and am well on my way through a second novel (agents like to see that you have a lot of stories in you).  On top of all this I have had time to continue my research of the publishing industry.  There are days when I get more done in one twelve hour period than I got done during an entire week while I was working at T. Rowe.  Also, I am less affected by stress and I’m exercising more. 

Then there are the other days.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I sit around watching The Days of our Lives (if that’s even still a thing), but the productivity just doesn’t flow.  There can be a number of reasons for this.  Most recently it was because I was working on a group of new chapters in my novel.  Because of feedback I have received I realized that they are necessary.  However for a while I just couldn’t get them to fit.  They caused changes that rippled throughout the story.   

While I was working at T. Rowe times like these would be frustrating, but I knew I would get through them.  One drawback of this year is that I am constantly aware that I am on a ticking clock.  I still have much of the year left, but I need to get the most out of this time.  And, as my wife has pointed out, this sense that I am running out of time is only going to get worse as the year goes on. 

But I keep on working at it every day, and the more I get done the better I feel.  When I am productive I need to cling to those times and get as much complete as possible.  When I face days where things aren't working out, I need to learn to step back and stop banging my head on doors that just won't open.  I can spend those days focusing on other things like cleaning the house, my short fiction, running or working on this blog.  (However, when I do post to this blog, don't worry, it doesn't mean I've had a bad day).   

Honestly, I’m grateful that I had the positions I had a T. Rowe Price.  They were safe, secure jobs in an established company.  However, I’m grateful that I can finally take this leap and pursue a path I have always wanted to follow.